Keith Arnold

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 19: C.J. Prosise #20 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish dives into the end zone for a one-yard touchdown against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the fourth quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 19, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Georgia Tech 30-22. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Pregame Six Pack: Prepping for Pitt

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On an Irish schedule that’s seen its share of change these past two years, not many people on the Notre Dame side of the tracks view the game against Pitt as a rivalry. But that’s not to say it isn’t a unique game. Nor can you say that there’s a lack of familiarity between these two programs.

This will be meeting No. 70 between the two programs, a matchup that dates back to 1909. So before stainless steel, the Titanic, and even the Oreo cookie, there was Notre Dame and Pittsburgh doing battle on the football field.

Pitt understands the gravity of this matchup. And with a natural rivalry against Penn State nonexistent, the Panthers always circle the Irish on the schedule, relishing the fact that the feeling isn’t always reciprocated.

Saturday’s game has the opportunity for another maximum impact matchup. The Panthers are still alive in the Coastal division race of the ACC, a two-loss season already feeling like a success for first-year coach Pat Narduzzi. Notre Dame came in ranked No. 5 in the first installment of the College Football Playoff poll, their inclusion in the Big Dance in the crosshairs. With the Irish already in the Steel City readying for an early start, they can expect a Panthers team that isn’t just playing gate-crasher, they’re still looking to make their mark and play for a conference title.

Let’s get to the pregame six pack. On a weekend that always seems to fly below the radar, there’s a high likelihood we are in for another interesting Saturday.

 

Forget about what the point spread says—history tells us this will be close. 

The last time Notre Dame won easily against Pitt, we still weren’t really sure how to pronounce Jeff Samardzija’s name. It was the coming-out party for Charlie Weis’s 2005 football team, when the Irish offense blitzed Dave Wannstedt’s Panthers and cruised to a 42-21 victory.

But since then, this game has been a nail-biter. The next six games have all been close. It’s a series that’s split the past eight contests and stayed within one score in nine of the past ten matchups, including multiple overtime battles in 2008 (Pitt won) and 2012 (the Irish escaped).

So much has changed inside the Pitt program since that meeting in 2005. Wannstedt was replaced briefly by Mike Haywood, who never coached a game before being replaced by Todd Graham. Graham didn’t make it a calendar year before he bolted for Tempe and was replaced by Paul Chryst, who left to coach Wisconsin last offseason, clearing the way for Narduzzi.

But even amidst the coaching turmoil and changes on the roster, this game has been a close one. So even with the Irish favored by nearly double-digits and the Panthers coming off a disappointing loss to North Carolina, expect a tight football game.

One possible solution for the close-game blues? Call Ara Parseghian. The former Irish coach beat Pitt all 11 times he played them, winning on average by a score of 42-9.

 

 

Tyler Boyd needs 49 yards to become Pitt’s all-time receiving leader. Notre Dame needs to make sure he doesn’t get them all in one play.

Brian Kelly deemed Tyler Boyd the latest “game-wrecker” that the Irish will have to face this season. And the veteran Pittsburgh receiver has earned that title, one of the best receivers in college football, even as the Pitt passing game still sorts itself out.

Boyd’s consistency and game-breaking ability have him ready to pass Antonio Bryant as the Panthers’ all-time leader in receiving yards, needing just 49 yards to do it. And as the only big-play threat in the Pitt offense with James Connor’s season erased in week one, expect to see the achievement happen Saturday, even if he’s locked up in battle with KeiVarae Russell.

But Notre Dame needs to make sure it doesn’t happen on one play. We’re in for an interesting battle on Saturday—a Pitt offense that struggles to make an explosive play and a Notre Dame defense that can’t seem to stop allowing them.

So while Boyd’s yards per catch is down to just 9.3 per touch, he’s the Panthers’ clear No. 1 receiver, nearly quadrupling the next closest pass catcher with 63 receptions on the season. An explosive player in space and also on special teams, Notre Dame needs to tackle cleanly and make sure they limit the damage Boyd does after the ball gets in his hands.

 

On the road and starting early. How the Irish adjust will be critical to success. 

Notre Dame hasn’t had a game start this early in the regular season since the Irish traveled to Pitt in 2011, winning an ugly slugfest 15-12. So to help adjust for the early start time, Kelly and the Irish brass decided to get out of town early, flying out Thursday night to help acclimate for the new schedule by going through a dress rehearsal on Friday.

Kelly talked about the decision to leave Thursday, and the thought process behind it.

“This will be the first time that we’ve used this type of schedule. We want to be able to duplicate Saturday’s schedule,” Kelly explained. “We took out some of our periods from practice today and we’ll include those tomorrow… to again get them used to a duplicate schedule on Friday and Saturday.”

UND.com’s Curt Rallo wrote about the logistics behind the decision, and some of the challenges that came along with it. Finding the hotel rooms was the first big one—Notre Dame needed 100 rooms for Thursday night. Then came booking the plane.

Now comes playing a dominant, mistake-free football game away from Notre Dame Stadium. That’s easier said than done.

 

Narduzzi’s defense will want to stuff the run. Whether they can do it is another story. 

Pat Narduzzi built his reputation playing an aggressive brand of defense, dominating at the line of scrimmage and forcing opponents to become one-dimensional. The first-year head coach has done a nice job implementing that style at Pittsburgh, even as he builds the necessary personnel to do it.

Expect Narduzzi to sellout to stuff the run, unwilling to let C.J. Prosise beat the Panthers from the backfield. But unlike the job Clemson and Temple did, whether or not Pitt is able to do so remains to be seen.

Pitt is a respectable 36th in the country against the run. But the past two weeks have shown cracks in the foundation, with Syracuse and North Carolina both able to be productive on the ground.

In Pitt’s 23-20 comeback win over the Orange, two big runs allowed Syracuse to average 5.9 yards per carry. North Carolina averaged 5.0 yards per carry in their 26-19 win, jumping out to a 20-3 halftime lead before riding former Notre Dame commitment Elijah Hood in the second half.

Notre Dame’s ability to run the football comes down to the play of the offensive line. Last week, the Irish struggled with missed assignments—and a stacked box—and couldn’t get the ground game off the runway. This week, it’ll be a challenge, but Kelly believes that the offensive line can find success against Narduzzi’s defense, but only if they play more consistent football.

“What we need to do is really be, as a unit, consistent,” Kelly said Thursday. “Eliminating penalties. And that one missed assignment seems to always come at the most inopportune time. If those two things, if we can eradicate those on Saturday, I think we can look to our offensive line to having a big day.”

Pitt’s pass rush has struggled to get to the quarterback the past few weeks, leaving the secondary susceptible as Narduzzi sends blitzers. That’s a chance to make big plays on both the ground and through the air if the offensive line can hold up.

 

Jaylon Smith has played great football. But Notre Dame’s coaching staff is challenging him to elevate everybody else’s play, too. 

One of the more fascinating exchanges on this week’s “A Season with Notre Dame” on Showtime was the interactions between defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder and Jaylon Smith. Notre Dame’s leading tackler and junior captain was challenged by his coach to elevate his teammates’ play—something VanGorder hasn’t necessarily seen out of the star linebacker.

That’s an interesting piece of Smith’s development. Not just as a leader, where Smith acknowledged he wasn’t necessarily comfortable acting like someone he wasn’t, but as a football player, making sure all boats rise with him, to borrow (or butcher) a metaphor Kelly has used in the past.

Smith might be playing his final four regular season games as a college football player, a decision you couldn’t fault if he’ll be a first-round draft pick and one of the first linebackers selected in the NFL Draft. But Kelly talked about the challenge to Smith and how he expects him to respond to it, regardless of the future.

“Leadership for Jaylon has been one where he has led by example and we don’t think that’s enough to be a great leader,” Kelly explained. “We think that you have to be somebody that is interactive if you will. He has to be teaching and communicating. It has to be more than just actions. We know about his actions, they’re phenomenal. You just watch him play, that speaks volumes. We want him to be more of a communicator with the guys and I think that’s the point that we wanted to make with him. And he took it to heart.”

Smith’s “communication” doesn’t necessarily have to be in the former of mentorship, like we saw with freshman linebacker Te’von Coney on Showtime. It needs to be demanding more accountability from his teammates on the field, whether that be the situational contributors or fellow captain Joe Schmidt.

Smith’s quiet leadership style isn’t too far off from what Sheldon Day was last year, and we’ve seen the senior evolve into a more vocal leader as his play also took a huge leap forward this season. If this November is the one the Irish expect to have, Smith needs to demand better from a defense that can’t seem to shake their inconsistency.

 

Red Zone efficiency is key. 

If you’re looking for one thing to improve this week it’s Notre Dame’s red zone play on offense. The Irish have a unit averaging 495 yards a game, the best of the Kelly era. And while the 36.5 points a game is also the best of Kelly’s time in South Bend, that number could be so much better if Notre Dame did a better job finishing drives.

Notre Dame is 100th in the country converting red zone opportunities, scoring on just 79 precent of their chances. They’re only slightly better getting touchdowns, 85th in the country with a 58 percent rate.

The good news? Pitt’s red zone defense is the worst in the country statistically. The Panthers have yet to stop an opponent once they get inside the 20-yard-line, No. 128 out of 128.

But that stat is incredibly misleading. The Panthers have been much better at not giving up touchdowns—they jump to No. 22 in the country when you look at their ability to hold teams to a field goal, basically the inverse of an Irish defense that’s 27th in red zone scoring but 93rd in giving up touchdowns.

Kelly talked earlier this week about the importance of the red zone, not just from quarterback DeShone Kizer eliminating the mistakes that plagued the offense against Pittsburgh, but the need for everybody to do their jobs when they get in the scoring areas.

“Our offense is what it is. We just have to be more efficient down there and spend extra time in practice in making sure that when we get into those areas, we convert them into touchdowns,” Kelly said.

“We’ll take some extra time this week. We’ve done some more self-scouting in terms of play calling, what we’re doing down there. But I think at the end of the day execution from everybody, a heightened awareness of where we are, then a little bit more extra practice time.”

That extra time came on Thursday, with the Irish working short yardage running and their playcalling inside the 10- and 20-yard lines. Now they need to take a step forward, cashing in when they have the chance to beat a team, opportunities they missed against Virginia, USC and Temple.

Kizer learning quickly about life in the spotlight

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Getting the chance to play in Philadelphia, scoring touchdowns in the home stadium of his favorite team was supposed to be a dream come true. Yet sophomore quarterback DeShone Kizer, who has amazed fans and media members not just as a quick study on the field but with his polished approach off of it, ran afoul with his head coach—and the dastardly judge, jury and executioners on social media—with his touchdown celebration.

Kizer’s arm flapping was supposed to be an homage to the Eagles. Instead, it was viewed as some type of disrespect to Temple, whose Owl mascot also happens to be a proud feathered bird.

Can a wide receiver get away with such a stunt? Maybe. But the starting quarterback at Notre Dame? Brian Kelly made that abundantly clear this week when asked about it.

“Totally unacceptable. It’s not what we’re about. It’s not who we are,” Kelly said, before explaining the origins of the celebration. “DeShone understands that… But it’s not who we are as a team or as a program. It won’t happen again.”

That’s life in the spotlight. Run for a 79-yard touchdown and one of the most exciting plays a quarterback has ever made at Notre Dame and get hammered for your celebration afterwards. So as Kizer figures out the transition from largely anonymous college football player to starting quarterback on the No. 5 team in the nation, it’s all a process—even figuring out how best to act like you’ve been there before when you really haven’t.

“At the end of the day, it’s immature by me to do anything in the end zone. That reflects on myself and my team. I apologize for that,” Kizer said this Wednesday. “Moving forward, guys understand the slightest movement out there can be taken in any way. I need to make sure I think out my decisions before I make them on the field.”

Distracting celebrations aside, Kizer’s focus should be on another challenge road game. A week after the offense sputtered when it got into the scoring areas and Kizer turned the football over twice, the young quarterback knows Pat Narduzzi, one of the most aggressive and brilliant defensive minds working in college football, is likely coming right for him.

“Coach Narduzzi, he’s had a lot of success at Michigan State running the defense that he has. Pitt is buying in,” Kizer said. “They have all the talent in the world over there. They have fast guys. They have strong guys. They have guys that have been there and done it a couple times… They’re buying into what he is laying out for them.”

As the No. 5 team in the country, Notre Dame is technically the “next team in” when it comes to the four coveted playoff spots. But with a challenging schedule that’ll see the Irish play three of four games away from Notre Dame, it’s imperative that the Irish find a way to eliminate any doubt that they’re good enough to get the nod over other one (and no)-loss teams. That’ll likely be dictated by the play of Notre Dame’s accidental starting quarterback.

It’s a challenge that Kizer’s clearly ready for.

“It makes us put in our mind that we’re right there in the top. But we just understand there’s only one we’re going to end up accomplishing that goal, and that’s to win out and take care of business on our end of the things,” Kizer said. “I think that’s the mindset we’ve had all season, it’s going to continue go forward. As long as we go 1-0 each week, we’ll see where we end up at the end.”

Opening at No. 5 a huge deal, but work just beginning for the Irish

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Whatever Brian Kelly might be saying, it’s clear that his team is guilty of scoreboard watching.

Take one look at social media from yesterday around 7:00 p.m. Eastern, and you’ll see tweet after tweet from excited Notre Dame football players, maybe surprised themselves by the amount of respect the Irish earned in the first poll released by the College Football Playoff committee.

Ranked fifth with two teams ahead of them facing off this weekend, and it doesn’t take a math major to assume that the Irish could ascend into one of four coveted playoff spots come this time next week. Of course (and sticking with the theme), it doesn’t take a history major to look back at last year and realize how little Week One playoff rankings mean.

It was almost fashionable yesterday to bash the importance of the initial rankings. A year after ESPN debuted a weekly 30-minute ranking show that was essentially a hot-take, college football troll session by committee chair Jeff Long and ESPN, the Playoff pushed back their initial ranking to the first week of November, if only to retain the sanity of their passionate audience and not overly expose the fact that the system wasn’t designed to make sense week to week, but rather only once at the end, when all the dust settled.

That’s supremely important for Notre Dame to grasp, and if there’s any worry the Irish might be resting on their top-five laurels, they’ll fall to thud rather quickly when Pitt gets their first opportunity to hit them in the mouth. With 11 unbeaten teams in consideration (now 10, thanks to a Toledo loss) any jockeying for position makes little sense—we’re in the middle of a beauty pageant that still hasn’t gotten to the talent portion.

So while the backlash to the open rankings is understandable, overlooking the initial snapshot is taking things a step too far. Notre Dame being ranked fifth is huge news, and essentially puts the Irish in charge of their own destiny, something many thought washed away in Hurricane Joaquin.

There are still too many permutations to worry about. What if Clemson loses to Florida State and the Seminoles beat Florida? What does the committee think of an undefeated Big 12 champ? Can two SEC teams steal a bid, and will Ohio State continue to receive the benefit of the doubt for playing good football an entire calendar year ago? And what to make of the Pac-12?

It’s all noise out there, existing only to trip up 18-to-21-year old football players who spend a majority of their life connected to the internet, the absolute worst place to help prepare you for a grueling November slate. So with Pitt, Wake Forest, Boston College and Stanford remaining, Kelly’s message shouldn’t be any different than it was before the polls went live.

“Each and every week is a playoff game for us,” Kelly said.

The next playoff game is Saturday at noon and the rankings are all subject to change, with a rollercoaster worth of twists and turns ahead of us. But starting at No. 5 is a huge development. Because there’s a very real shot that winning out will be enough for Notre Dame to punch their ticket to the playoff.

And that’s all you could ever ask for.

 

High noon showdown coming up for Russell and Boyd

PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 31: KeiVarae Russell #6 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish intercepts a pass intended for John Christopher #7 of the Temple Owls in the fourth quarter on October 31, 2015 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish defeated the Temple Owls 24-20. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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If you were wondering when Notre Dame’s nearly annual battle with Pitt would kick into high gear, it might have happened Wednesday afternoon. That’s when Panthers standout receiver Tyler Boyd talked to the local media, and made it clear that he wanted a victory against Notre Dame.

Badly.

“When you see Notre Dame on your schedule, that’s the only team you really want to beat for sure, even if you’re 1-11,” Boyd said.

And just like that, Boyd put into perspective what this game means to Pitt, heading into a weekend that feels a little different than most, courtesy of the early noon kickoff.

Boyd’s stats are down, but he’s still been the catalyst of a still-developing passing game this season. Entering the year as part of a 1-2 punch with running back James Connor, Boyd sat out one game after an offseason DUI, making headlines for the wrong reason while Connor’s season ending as quickly as it got started with an ACL tear.

Still, Irish head coach Brian Kelly knows that Boyd is the weapon in the Pitt’s offensive attack, a unit that’s struggled to make big plays going against a defense that hasn’t been able to contain them.

“He is dynamic,” Kelly said of Boyd. “He can run the ball as well on offense. They’re using him at the running back position, wide receiver. He’s a game wrecker. We’re aware of him in special teams as well as an offensive player.”

Boyd will likely be matching up with cornerback KeiVarae Russell, who has made game-changing plays to help seal wins against USC and Temple. Russell, a player with no shortage of confidence, will be going against a receiver who seems to share a similar personality trait.

“I’m definitely looking forward to going against him,” Boyd told the Post-Gazette’s Sam Werner on Wednesday. “He plays the field corner and I usually go out to the field…Every time I get a chance to go up against him, I want to make sure the ball’s coming my way. I want to let the world know I’m still a great receiver. The stats really aren’t what they’re supposed to be, but I’m still the player that I have been since the first couple of years.”

While we haven’t heard from Russell this week, there’s no doubt he’s circled this matchup. On Media Day in August, he was talking about Boyd, and was confident that he’d be following him around the field, whether he was lined up outside, in the slot or anywhere else.

Last weekend, we saw Russell get beat a few times in man coverage, but recover to make the game-clinching interception. As the Irish secondary tries to play the first half without Elijah Shumate, one of the games inside the game will be the comfort and confidence Pitt has in quarterback Nate Peterman, and if they’ll take some risks downfield with him.

Taking chances down the field hasn’t been the M.O. of head coach Pat Narduzzi or offensive coordinator Jim Chaney in their first season at Pitt. But going up against an Irish offense that’ll move the ball and a Notre Dame secondary with a ton of question marks, there certainly are worse strategies.

Plus, if you give one listen to Boyd or Russell, you can’t help but hope we see these two battle early and often.

 

Greg Bryant will continue football career at UAB in 2017

North Carolina v Notre Dame
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Former Notre Dame running back Greg Bryant will return to D-I football in 2017 at a program that’s also making a major comeback. Spending the 2015 season playing junior college football at ASA in Miami, the former five-star recruit has decided to finish his college career at University of Alabama-Birmingham, where football is coming back after the program shut down last year.

Bryant made the announcement on his Instagram page:

“Never in my life would I be thinking I would go here,” Bryant posted. “But, the next move has to be the best move. I’m officially committed to the University of Alabama Birmingham! Strictly a business decision. ‪Minor set back for a major comeback.”

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly was open to the idea of Bryant returning to South Bend if he wanted to earn his degree. But that return always seemed highly unlikely since Bryant left the university after being declared academically ineligible, even as Bryant had hinted at it via social media a few times this season. Bryant was already suspended four games for an undisclosed rules violation before his summer semester grades came up just short.

Notre Dame’s running back position has been thin this season, especially after losing Bryant this summer and Tarean Folston three carries into the 2015 season. But C.J. Prosise has carried the load for Notre Dame and freshman Josh Adams has done well in a reserve role.

Bryant has two seasons of eligibility remaining, earning a medical redshirt in 2013 as a freshman. His final Notre Dame stats include 57 carries for 303 yards and three touchdowns, good for 5.3 yards per carry.